Note: This blog is adapted with permission from the book Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown.
Story has it that as a child, Bill Monroe would hide in the woods next to a railroad track in the “long, ole, straight bottom part of Kentucky.” Bill would watch World War I veterans returning home from the war as they walked along the track. The weary soldiers would sometimes let out long hollers—loud, high-pitched, bone-chilling hollers of pain and freedom that cut through the air like the blare of a siren.
Whenever John Hartford, an acclaimed musician and composer, tells this story, he lets out a holler of his own. The minute you hear it, you know it. Oh, that holler. It’s not a spirited yippee or a painful wail, but—something in between. It’s a holler that’s thick with both misery and redemption. A holler that belongs to another place and time. Bill Monroe would eventually become known as the father of bluegrass music. During his legendary career, he often told people that he practiced that holler and “always reckoned that’s where his singing style came from.” Today we call that sound high lonesome.
High lonesome is a sound or type of music in the bluegrass tradition. Its roots go back to Bill Monroe, Roscoe Holcomb, and the bluegrass region of Kentucky. It’s a kind of music I find arresting. And hard. And full of pain. When I hear Roscoe Holcomb singing “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,” a cappella, like an arrow piercing the air, the hair on the back of my neck stands up, and I get goosebumps when I hear Bill Monroe’s “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome.” When you hear that holler over the thumping mandolins and banjos, you can feel the heaviness of those soldiers’ hollers, and you can even faintly make out the sound of a distant train chugging down the tracks.
Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope. Only art can take the holler of a returning soldier and turn it into a shared expression and a deep, collective experience. Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared. The magic of the high lonesome sound is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time.
When we hear someone else sing about the jagged edges of heartache or the unspeakable nature of grief, we immediately know we’re not the only ones in pain. The transformative power of art is in this sharing. Without connection or collective engagement, what we hear is simply a caged song of sorrow and despair; we find no liberation in it. It’s the sharing of art that whispers, “You’re not alone.”
The world feels high lonesome and heartbroken to me right now. We’ve sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology. We’ve turned away from one another and toward blame and rage. We’re lonely and untethered. And scared. So damn scared.
But rather than coming together and sharing our experiences through song and story, we’re screaming at one another from further and further away. Rather than dancing and praying together, we’re running from one another. Rather than pitching wild and innovative new ideas that could potentially change everything, we’re staying quiet and small in our bunkers and loud in our echo chambers.
When I look through the 200-thousand-plus pieces of data my team and I have collected over the past 15 years, I can only conclude our world is in a collective spiritual crisis. This is especially true if you think about the core of that definition of spirituality from The Gifts of Imperfection: “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.”
Right now, we are neither recognizing nor celebrating our inextricable connection. We are divided from others in almost every area of our lives. We’re not showing up with one another in a way that acknowledges our connection. Cynicism and distrust have a stranglehold on our hearts. And rather than continuing to move toward a vision of shared power among people, we’re witnessing a backslide to a vision of power that is the key to the autocrat’s power over people.
Addressing this crisis will require a tremendous amount of courage. For the moment, most of us are either making the choice to protect ourselves from conflict, discomfort, and vulnerability by staying quiet, or picking sides and in the process slowly and paradoxically adopting the behavior of the people we’re fighting. Either way, the choices we’re making to protect our beliefs and ourselves are leaving us disconnected, afraid, and lonely. Very few people are working on connection outside the lines drawn by “their side.” Finding love and true belonging in our shared humanity is going to take tremendous resolution. My hope is that this research will shed light on why our quest for true belonging requires that we brave some serious wilderness. Let’s look at several of the reasons behind the crisis, starting with the birth of factions. . . .
Excerpted with permission from the book BRAVING THE WILDERNESS by Brené Brown. Copyright © 2017 by Brené Brown. Published by Random House, and imprint a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Read the full version of this blog, and more, in our November/December 2017 issue, "Our National Blame Game: Can Therapists Help Find a Way Forward?"Read more FREE articles like this on Cultural, Social, and Racial Issues.
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Illustration © Doug Ross
Tags: 2017 | Brene Brown | connection | connectivity | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | family | fear | loneliness | love | love and relationships | political divide | politics | race | race in therapy | race relations | sadness | transformation | vulnerability